Sunday, February 17, 2019

February's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: BODYGUARD -- Sizzle and Fizzle

This Netflix/BBC series created by Jed Mercurio, below (Line of Duty, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Frankenstein), was wildly popular across the pond, making its star, Richard Madden (Game of Thrones, Cinderella, Medici), a widely-speculated replacement for Daniel Craig upon his retirement from the Bond franchise. Madden is said to be in talks about Bond and also in line for another ‘Bodyguard’ series. The part surprised Madden and us with his recent Golden Globe win (‘Best Performance in a TV Series’) for his charismatic policeman in the thriller, having already distinguished himself in romantic roles. A sleeper was his lead in A Promise with Rebecca Hall and Alan Rickman by French director Patrice Leconte. Madden made this tepid historical drama and box-office failure worth viewing. He simply has that something extra that makes you watch and watch. 

The salient feature of Bodyguard is suspense, the kind of heart-in-mouth drama that doesn’t sneak up on cats’ paws but seizes your attention from the very first few minutes of the thriller, making it difficult for the reviewer to spoil the action without in theory spoiling the experience.

Readers of my monthly reviews know I am somewhat cavalier about plot-spoiling — and purposefully, rather than in disregard of the reader/viewer. Good material is not about plot ins-and-outs so much as the journey; great stories are savored not for ‘what happened’ but for the emotional arc the characters experience and the more meaningful truths revealed by the story.

Knowing the plot basics positions one better to think about the characters’ growth, failures, and larger message, rather than having to keep track of the plot mechanics as well as to continue assessing the characters’ ‘interiority’. Hence we revisit Death of a Salesman, Hamlet, The Godfather, etc., over and again to re-experience the characters handling of their travail — glad, in fact, to have the plot basics out of the way. Sometimes a perfect spoil helps the viewer through the twists and turns and into the thought-provoking stuff.

David Budd, our bodyguard, is a nervous-making protagonist to start — a character whose history makes him arresting, above and beyond the police- and-political machinations that drive the series. And Madden, here in his native Scottish accent, compels your attention. He’s reluctantly separated from his wife (Sophie Rundle, lovely actress from Peaky Blinders, The Bletchley Circle, Jamestown), largely it seems as the result of PTSD effects from his military service in Afghanistan — one gathers his erratic, obsessive behavior has made him a problematic partner. Budd, however, has a cool shell that he uses to insulate himself from emotion and direct his obsessive focus to the task-at-hand. Nevertheless his stress leaks constantly, and although we follow with confidence as he disposes of threat after threat, we are nevertheless fearful that one of these moments the tightly-wound Budd will blow. The ‘plot’ consists of crisis piled on crisis providing ongoing anxiety to the viewer who worries for the outwardly strong, inwardly brittle Budd.

Screen-writer Mercurio, himself a physician and a novelist, cleverly makes the mental health issues of his protagonist immediate, but is not as clever at plotting.

The series launches with a near bang as Budd, a police officer traveling off-duty by train with his two kids, confronts a woman passenger, a terrorist wearing a suicide vest, threatening to blow herself up. Budd immediately shifts seamlessly into work mode — and his deft handling of a desperate situation gets him promoted to protecting a prominent politician, Home Secretary Julia Montague, played by Keeley Hawes (below, left, of The Durrells in Corfu and Line of Duty).

Julia Montague is a power player who showboats with a combination of bravado and extreme politics, not as officious as Ted Cruz, but similarly temperamental and difficult, sucking the air out of any situation. She’s a rabid military hawk; one political axe she grinds is a push for more government surveillance of the public to detect and prevent terrorism. (We worked our way in and out of this kind of extreme government intrusiveness in the U.S. following 9/11; terrorism appears to continue as a more immediate threat in Britain.)

Her politics are not only anathema to officer Budd, but annoy the Prime Minister and make the Home Secretary a target for assassination from any number of possible sources. The relationship that develops uneasily between Montague and Budd nevertheless is full of fizz and smolder, causing a rapid rise in tension in the early episodes, only to fizzle out as the series proceeds.

Later other characters are implicated in malfeasance and Mercurio’s closing gambit is so full of implausibilities that it damages the fabric of the whole, despite the terror of the moment remaining relentless.

Budd has wound himself into our own psyches and become so memorable that one doesn’t walk away feeling entirely betrayed by failed plotting, but certainly let down. In the main, Mercurio has satisfied in creating a rather transfixing main character plunked in a scenario that sparks but doesn’t arc.

This is another example of a story that winds itself up brilliantly and fails to climb down off the cliff. It is beyond me why so many good writers fall into this trap — having a satisfying exit plan/resolution is so crucial to the whole. Mercurio’s writing here leans too much on dizzying disposal of characters and complications involving figures in whom we have little emotional investment. It’s gimmicky.

(The limited streaming series that marches beautifully to the richest, most worthy conclusion of any I have watched in recent years is Scott Frank’s brilliantly paced, emotionally satisfying Godless on Netflix, a Western with Jeff Daniels and Brits Jack O’Connell, and Michelle Dockery.)

One hopes Mercurio takes into account the near-unanimous criticism of Bodyguard that accompanied its praise and popularity and digs in more satisfyingly to a few main characters. In plotting a second series, it would complement the whole to include backstory and development of Budd’s relationship with his separated spouse, Vicky, above, left.

The above post was written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Art and life beautifully, cleverly, sadly explored in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Oscar-nominated NEVER LOOK AWAY

German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has made only three full-length movies over the past dozen years, but two of these -- The Lives of Others and the current NEVER LOOK AWAY are keepers. (His third, The Tourist, was a mostly flashy-crap remake of a better, shorter film.) His two good films have their flaws, and I don't think they are as profound as the filmmaker might imagine. But I also don't think that matters much because they are plenty good as is: rich in theme and ideas, well-written and directed, and performed to a "t" by actors that could hardly be improved upon.

Herr von Donnersmarck (shown at left) has also done something of a service to art in his approach to this film because he actually offers us an artist/hero who cares about art more than he does about money or prestige -- and thus spends his life (and the movie) trying to produce art that's worthwhile.

If this sounds pompous and tiresome, the result proves anything but, as the filmmaker has surrounded his themes with a crackerjack melodrama that fascinates, troubles, and -- finally -- quite beautifully adheres.

The film begins in the Nazi era in a German art gallery, during which a rather nasty and pompous tour guide (above) takes his group around an art show made up of the kind of "decadent" modern art that Adolf Hitler so loathed.

Within that little tour group is a very pretty young women named Elizabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl, above, right) and her small nephew, a bright and open little boy, Kurt (Cai  Cohrs, above and below) who will grow into our artist hero. Both aunt and child seem to possess an understanding of and love for this so-called decadent art.

Although Elizabeth departs the film early and very sadly, it is her spirit that most hangs over the remaining movie. It is she who tells our hero the titular words, Never look away! The reason why resonates throughout this very long (three hours and nine minutes) movie,

which tracks both our hero's career and his love life (he is now played by the very skillful Tom Schilling, above) as well as the constant repression of art by dictatorships both fascist (the Nazis) and communist (the post-war German Democratic Republic), together with the eugenics and euthanasia practiced by the Nazis during World War II.

Regarding the latter, we have the character of Professor Carl Seeband (played by the fine Sebastian Koch, above), who is the man responsible for the murderous action that sets so much into play here.

After the many recent jibes at art and artists and the marketing of both, seen in everything from last year's fabulous The Square to the current and quite entertaining Velvet Buzzsaw on Netflix, what a joy it is to find a movie that not only takes art seriously but tries to genuinely show us the constant struggle involved in producing meaningful art. Sure, even in this film we see plenty of would-be artists trying to come up with the "new idea." But what counts is something else. (That's Paula Beer, below and above, right, as our hero's one true love -- other than art.)

Yes, the movie is a little long (TrustMovies thinks 15 minutes so could have easily been shorn with no great loss), yet it strong enough in theme and execution to withstand this. It also refuses to easily tie up certain loose ends regarding justice and punishment. (How many ex-Nazis were allowed by the Allies to work for them, go free, or emigrate elsewhere in the world?)

There is not always -- nor, I am afraid, need there be -- a connection between morality and art. "Never look away, Kurt," Elizabeth tells her charge, "because everything that's true is beautiful." Which helps explain the conception of a lot of very strange art. That's an opinion with which artist/revolutionary Joseph Beuys might agree. Beuys is clearly the model for the art teacher (played by Oliver Masucci, above) who most affects our troubled hero.

All told, a grand combination of melodrama and ideas, Never Look Away has been nominated for two Oscars, as Best Foreign Language Film and for its cinematography (by Caleb Deschanel). Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, it opened on the coasts at the end of last year and will finally hit South Florida this Friday, February 15, at Miami's Tower Theater and Fort Lauderdale's Classic Gateway.  Wherever you reside around the country, click here then click on WATCH NOW to find the theaters nearest you.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The "old days" of Miami featured in Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch's THE LAST RESORT

A fascinating journey by a pair of filmmakers that details the work of a pair of photographers who helped document a Jewish community and a piece of the history of Miami, Florida, that has now pretty much ceased to exist, THE LAST RESORT proves a small, precise and beautifully handled little documentary about some wonderful archival photography and the two very different fellows who took it. As good as is the photography itself -- and it is very good -- the tale told here of one of the photographers proves equally  compelling.

The filmmaking team -- Dennis Scholl (below) and Kareem Tabsch (at left) -- have lovingly assembled both the photos and the stories of the photographers, Andy Sweet and Gary Monroe, their friends and family, and especially the residents of the South Beach area of Miami back in the 1970s, when so many of these folk had their "pictures taken."

In just a brief 70 minutes, we are made privy to what seems like an entire community of retired Jews -- quite of few of
them Holocaust survivors -- who made their permanent, often final home here in Florida. The documentary is a combination of history, Sweet and Monroe's photos, older archival shots, and interviews with a wide range of people -- from friends and family to residents and their younger relatives. One of the latter includes noted filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women).

Although TrustMovies cannot find any reference to the "writers" of the film, he is guessing that may have been Scholl and Tabsch, as well -- both of whom are South Florida  residents and filmmakers. Whoever wrote the narration of The Last Resort, it is very well done, providing oodles of info in an entertaining, fast-moving fashion.

But it is the photo array that certainly seals the deal. You could hardly ask for more different styles that Sweet and Monroe offered -- the former shot colorful, off-the-cuff photos (as above) that captured the moment and people with delight and glee but zero sense of anything judgmental; the latter shot only in black-and-white (below), in a much more formal, artful manner.

Both styles work beautifully and actually manage to complement each other. Though the two photographers often ribbed each other about how each chose to work, they remained close for a long while and quite committed to their project of recording this fading community.

Although Gary Monroe is the photographer who is still with us, the movie devotes much of its narration to Andy Sweet. Little wonder, as his story is by far the most -- in movie terms, at least -- melodramatic and compelling. It is also hugely sad, but difficult to write about without giving away spoilers.

We see much more of Sweet's life, from his early years onto teen youth and adulthood, with Monroe providing narration and updates, as needed. In fact, Sweet and his story begin to take over the film  from maybe the midway point onwards.

This is not a bad thing, since his story is such a mind-boggling one, and the Miami Jewish community is mostly shown us only by the photos the two men took. Both Sweet and the community are gone now, yet their histories survive, thanks to this fine little movie and the photos -- the reclamation of which the documentary's final section is devoted --  that tell the story.

Distributed by Kino Lorber, the documentary opened in New York City this past December and will hit South Florida, its natural audience, this Friday, February 15 -- at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, Miami; O Cinema Miami Beach; the Movies of Delray and Movies of Lake Worth; and the Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton. On February 22, it will play the Lake Worth Playhouse, and on March 1 the film will open at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Town Center 5. To view all current and past playdates, cities and theaters, click here. For information about personal appearances at the O Cinema, Coral Gables Art Cinema and Movies of Delray, click the link above to each of those theaters.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Blu-ray debut for HORROR EXPRESS, in which two Hammer heroes meet some Spanish scares

HORROR EXPRESS was not actually a Hammer Film but it may seem like one, thanks to its stars -- Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, two stalwarts of the Hammer stable -- and subject matter, the latter of which spans space aliens, body hopping, bloody horror and zombies run amok. As written by Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Zimet and directed by Spanish filmmaker Eugenio Martín (working here under the more American sounding name of Gene Martin), this 1972 movie is an oddball precursor to everything from The Hidden to The Walking Dead.

Senor Martín,  shown at right in his twilight years, did a workmanlike job of bringing all this together, while the decent enough acting from the leads and support, plus a very nice "period" look to the sets and costumes, combine to make the movie an enjoyable enough romp for those inclined to this genre.

The movie begins in Manchuria (or maybe points east) as Lee, playing one of his typical stern-faced scientists, discovers an ancient body encased in ice and then loads it onto the titular train (the original Spanish title of the film was Panic on the Transiberian Express).

Very soon, one train passenger after another is dying via bloody eyeballs and a very fast and thorough "brain wiping."

OK: By this point in time, we've seen it all before (or since), yet for fans of the horror/sci-fi/thriller genre, Horror Express offers enough decent delectation to pass muster. Cushing and Lee (above, left and right respectively) are solid fun, as usual, while the best supporting performance comes from Alberto de Mendoza (below) as a priest who is just as happy to serve Satan as God, so long as his master is really powerful.

The distaff side is represented by a couple of good-looking ladies -- one bad, the other good -- who get exactly the just desserts would would expect in this kind of movie. (That's Helga Liné, below, right, as the bad girl.)

In the final third, no less than Telly Savalas (below) makes his usual "bold" appearance, rather tossing a monkey wrench into things with his over-the-top style. But by then the movie itself has gone over the top, with even more soon to come.

So just settle back for a wild ride. And, for heaven's sake, don't look into that naughty monster's eyes! From Arrow Video via MVD Visual, and running 88 minutes, Horror Express leaves the station tomorrow, Tuesday, February 12, on Blu-ray -- for purchase and (one hopes) rental.

As usual with Arrow, there are bonus features aplenty. Click here to view all that you'll get in this particular package.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

From Arrow Video on Blu-ray, two by Luigi Bazzoni: THE POSSESSED and THE FIFTH CORD

One of the great pleasures of Arrow Video resides in the opportunity to view films transferred to Blu-ray so spectacularly well that even second- or third-rate movies take on a sheen that -- for awhile, at least -- renders them extremely watchable. The company catalog also seems to lean toward the much lesser-known films that can enrich the viewing of folk whose taste runs to genre movies (giallo in particular) and/or the work of filmmakers whose reputations have taken some time to build and/or blossom.

Giallo is front and (maybe-slightly-off) center in the two movies under consideration here that made their home video debut this earlier this week, both directed by a filmmaker new to TrustMovies: Luigi Bazzoni (shown left), an Italian whose half dozen full-length features moved from western to thriller to documentary.

His first, however -- THE POSSESSED (La donna del lago), co-directed by Franco Rossellini -- comes close to an art film/character study via the manner in which it tells a true-life mystery tale from the annals of modern Italian crime history.

Featuring some lip-smackingly good black-and-white cinematography by Leonida Barboni, and a close-to-the-vest, highly interior performance from its leading man (Peter Baldwin, above, right), interestingly set against some nearly over-the-top ones by the excellent supporting cast, which includes Valentina Cortese (below, right), Philippe Leroy, Pia Lindström and Virna Lisi, the movie may not be all that great, but it is consistently interesting and a pleasure to view in its ace transfer from Arrow.

A writer who clearly has a problem committing/connecting to emotional relationships beats a hasty retreat from his current one and takes off for a lakeside hotel at which he evidently spent some previous time, during which he grew smitten with a particular hotel employee (Ms Lisi, below, a beautiful actress who made quite a stir internationally back in the 60's and 70s).

The movie unfolds quietly and rather methodically, and if the plotting does not approach "thriller" status, the movie, along with its cast of oddball characters and some very nice art direction from Luigi Scaccianoce and his assistant (a certain Dante Ferretti) should prove enough to hold your interest.

As usual with Arrow Video, the bonus features, together, comprise a full-length experience in themselves. If you're a fan of black-and-white movies, all this should be enough to easily corral you. The movie, distributed in the USA by MVD Entertainment Group, hit the street this past Tuesday, February 5 -- for purchase and (I would hope) rental.

The original Italian title of THE FIFTH CORD, Giornata nera per l'ariete, translates to "Black Day for the Ram," which would probably have not set the U.S. box-office on fire. However, TrustMovies does not at all understand what "The Fifth Cord" actually signifies. The Fifth Glove would have made a hell of a lot more sense here as the title of this relatively average giallo, in which we hear, via tape recording at the beginning, a killer explaining that he intends to murder five people in pretty quick succession. The movie's 93 minutes are then devoted to those would-be murders -- in which two of the victims actually survive.

The main reason to see this film, too, is its crack cinematography -- by the great Vittorio Storaro -- (in a decent transfer to Blu-ray), whose exteriors and interiors (above and below) are indeed something to see. Other big names associated with the movie are its composer, Ennio Morricone (offering here only a so-so score),

along with a few of its actors: the sexy -- and back then (1971) in his prime--  Franco Nero (shown below) in the leading role,

and the always interesting Rossella Falk (below, and so memorable in Modesty Blaise) playing the killer's second victim, and finally a couple of actors we older Americans remember from their early Hollywood days but might not be so aware of their later Italian careers: Pamela Tiffin and Edmond Purdom.

As so often happened during the giallo craze, repetition did not guarantee worth or success, so The Fifth Cord falls short of anything memorable. The plotting and dialog are mostly standard, if that, and the killings, too, are by-the-book obvious.

Characterization is minimal, with most of the cast playing either victim or suspect. The final unmasking may be a surprise, and that might be a reason for sticking out the film. Only the fun cast and Storaro's fine work rise above the usual.

Still, the Bonus Features on the disc are great fun for fans of Italian mainstream cinema, including a new interview with Franco Nero, a previously unseen deleted sequence, and other interviews and visual essays. From Arrow Video via MVD Entertainment Group, the movie made its Blu-ray debut this past week and is now available for purchase and/or (I hope, somewhere) rental.

Friday, February 8, 2019

The best fashion documentary in a long, long while: James Crump's giddily entertaining, hugely informative ANTONIO LOPEZ 1970 -- SEX, FASHION & DISCO

How in hell could it be that a documentary this good -- enormously entertaining, full of new information and all about the world's favorite meaningless preoccupation (fashion) -- didn't get a decent theatrical release in the USA? TrustMovies suspects that this was due to the fact that the subject of ANTONIO LOPEZ 1970: SEX, FASHION & DISCO, Mr. Lopez himself, a great fashion illustrator in his day, is simply not that well known outside the fashion field.

Unlike figures such as Karl Lagerfeld and Andy Warhol, who are also seen in this film, Lopez was much better known to fashion insiders rather than to the general public. I myself had never heard of him when I sat down to view this grab-you-by-your-lapels-and-dance-you-off-to-discoland doc -- which held me in thrall for all of its 95 minutes.

As written and directed by James Crump (shown at left), the documentary introduces its unusual subject and then immediately pulls you in via compelling interviews with quite an array of fashion folk and celebrities. Fortunately, these are not simply the usual suspects. (Mr. Lopez's life and career was far too free and full for that.)

By the end of the film, Mr. Crump has made a very good case for Lopez (shown above and below) being one of, if not the most talented and important figure in all of the fashion/celebrity world, easily eclipsing the likes of marketing maven Warhol -- about whom we hear yet again how "not there" the man was, so far as his so-called art was concerned.

We see and hear about Lopez's personal life and rampant sexuality, his groundbreaking illustration (below and further below) and about the manner in which he worked, why the result was so different from anything seen before (or since, really), and of the many icons he discovered -- from Jessica Lange to Jerry Hall to Grace Jones, along with more famous models than I have time to list here.

We also hear plenty from Grace Coddington, whose thoughtful, intelligent commentary greatly enriches the film. Best of all, however, and the moral center of the movie, is the delightfully rambunctious and greatly missed Bill Cunningham, whose remembrances of Lopez and his lover/partner Juan Ramos, provide much of the humor and emotion, together with a sense of great caring for a time, place and people, the likes of which and whom we will not see again.

What a difference is the Bill Cunningham (at left, below) shown here from the older, much more staid fellow we saw in that very lovely (but very "correct") documentary, Bill Cunningham New York! (If you enjoy this film as much as did I, you'll also want to watch the extended interview with Cunningham that is part of the Bonus Features on the DVD.)

Mr. Crump is also to be congratulated for giving us such lovely footage of Jessica Lange (below), seemingly speaking off the cuff and from the heart. She is, as usual, a pleasure to see and hear -- even more so telling us about a time and place we had no idea she'd been such a part of.

The documentary flips back and forth in time between the 60s and 70s yet is so lively and fun, you won't mind at all. And what to make of the young Karl Lagerfeld (below) we view here? Quite a difference from the éminence grise we've seen over the past couple of decades! His treatment of Antonio at the end of the latter's career, as told us by Cunningham, makes for the emotional high point of the film.

Most important, of course, is Lopez himself, and Crump makes it clear what a wonder he was. A better artist than Warhol, he had not a whit of interest in marketing. And that seems to have made the major difference between their careers.

Antonio wanted to live and create (and have as much sex as possible) -- all of which he did. We have not, nor probably will we, encounter this combo of talent, personality and achievement in the fashion field again.

From Film Movement and arriving on DVD and digital this coming Tuesday, February 12, Antonio Lopez: Sex, Fashion & Disco will be available for purchase and/or rental. Click here to view the various ways in which you can see this documentary.